A Mild-Mannered Reporter: A new start in Champions Online

Coming to you live from the Canadian wilderness!
Apparently, my phrasing in last week's poll was unclear, so let me make myself totally clear right now: Starting this week and with every subsequent week, A Mild-Mannered Reporter will be focusing on the whole genre of superheroic MMOs. Last week's poll was meant to be a place to start, not a place to end up. With that in mind, it's time to jump into Champions Online, a game that I haven't played since it was in beta... which was enough to convince me to cancel my pre-order after months of being excited.

Let me step back. It's not that the game was terribly bad back then; it's that I could tell the designers loved active combat, and as it turns out my computer at the time could run the game in only the most cursory sense of the word. Trying to take part in semi-active combat when every action has about a half-second of delay attached is not what I'd call fun or smart.

But that was ages ago, so it's time to give it the old college try once again. I loaded it up on Steam and got started anew, and after some frustration with login verifications and getting the subscription working, I filled in a month of subscription time and went to make my first character.

What?  I like purple, green, and robots.  Lay off.This was more intimidating than it might seem, due in no small part to the fact that the character creator is reminiscent of City of Heroes'. Not in the sense that it's more powerful -- I think it is, but I can't really do a side-by-side comparison -- but in the sense that it's overwhelming when you dive in for the first time. This isn't something I tend to think about, since I played with the City of Heroes generator for so long that I knew where costume parts were and what I could do with them, but with a totally new system...

I also ran into a nasty glitch. See, some costume parts in the game are free to subscribers and some aren't. For some reason, my first character was not properly flagged for parts that were not free, so I wound up with a character using several locked pieces that had not been indicated as locked when I went to make my character. Frustrating indeed. Possible to work around, but frustrating. I also still haven't gotten the usual stipend for subscribing; maybe that's after a month or whatever. Not clear on it.

I didn't opt for the archetype route, going for the freeform system instead because that's sort of the game's whole selling point. And it's here that the game really starts to come into its own even during character creation. The listing of archetypes and their power selections makes it clear what you actually get by going down a given route, and the "innate" setup gives both a transparent description of what you'll prioritize and what each stat does. I remember in the beta it wasn't so transparent, but even now I have a pretty good idea of what I'll be looking for in terms of stats and why. It's also clear where according weaknesses will be due to the simple necessity of stats and the like.

Playing the game feels familiar, in many places. Oddly, it seems that the years have actually brought the game closer to CoH rather than further away. Some of this is to be expected -- Cryptic Studios was originally behind both games -- but it seems that a lot of the cruft in Champions Online has been trimmed away, and as a result the game is very familiar to veterans of the city. You have your tutorial mission in an instanced zone, then you get thrown into the larger world to train up your powers and start adventuring in the real world once again.

The "active" side of things has also been trimmed down substantially from what little I've seen. And there are clever bits here and there: Rather than dropping Inspirations, enemies drop little glowing orbs that have the same net effect immediately. As someone who has long been far too likely to stockpile inspirations I'll never use, I welcome the game's removing this choice from my hands, as I am obviously unable to make use of it.

That's not actually a proper powered armor, for the record.  It's more of an amplifier framework.  But this isn't the usual column where I rant about my characters. As I'm writing this, it occurs to me that archetypes also serve as a great intro for new players whether or not they get used, since they give players an idea of what sorts of powers to take at given levels without figuring it out via trial and error. So that's another mark in the game's favor.

From what I've seen from forums and related points, the biggest issue that people playing the game have is a lack of content once you get up to the top. I am not anywhere near a position to talk about that, but I can definitely see where that would happen, since both Cryptic and Paragon have tended to prize interesting systems over new things to do. I can also see the intro area becoming a seriously irritating piece of work after a few runthroughs. But the game is definitely much better than I had remembered, and I'm going to keep tooling around in it for the rest of the month before moving on to DC Universe Online. Amidst other projects.

If you're still looking for a new home after CoH, I'd recommend it, especially if you're interested to see what CoH would look like if it had been designed after World of Warcraft's breakout success rather than before. The questing as a whole feels closer to World of Warcraft's model instead of the CoH contact set-up, and there are elements clearly lifted from the behemoth, but there's a lot of that old-school CoH charm here after all.

As always, feedback is welcome down below or via mail to eliot@massively.com. As I mentioned last week, more feedback here is a very good thing at the moment as I need to find out what works and what doesn't, and the only way I'm going to learn that is by people telling me right now. Next week, while I'll still be tooling around Millennium City, I want to do something completely different. It'll make sense then.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.
This article was originally published on Massively.